Obama push against gun rights senators could backfire

McClatchy NewspapersApril 22, 2013 

— “You’ve got to send the right people to Washington” to deal with gun control, President Barack Obama insists. In fact, the people voters send to Washington next year could prove to be Obama’s nightmare.

Obama’s effort to pressure senators to back gun control could very well cost several Democrats their Senate seats. Promoting gun control in conservative states could mobilize gun rights supporters. And blasting Democrats who back gun rights could sour liberals on those senators, keeping left-leaning voters home and helping elect Republicans.

Obama and Democrats face a huge dilemma. Do they rail against gun control, hoping to push opponents out of office? Or do they take a cold look at political reality and realize they may be jeopardizing Democratic gun rights advocates whose Senate votes they badly need on other issues?

Republicans need a net gain of six to control the Senate, and the eight most vulnerable seats are all held by Democrats. Among the Democrats voting against tougher background checks were Alaska’s Mark Begich, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Montana’s Max Baucus. Pryor and Begich face tough re-elections next year, while Baucus, who also was up for another term, said Tuesday he is retiring.

Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana backed the gun control plan, and they could find that vote makes their already uncertain re-election prospects even shakier. Three others who voted yes – Iowa’s Tom Harkin, South Dakota’s Tim Johnson and West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller – are retiring, and Republicans have decent chances to win those seats.

At Organizing for Action, which promotes views closely identified with Obama, executive director Jon Carson urged backers to keep up the pressure. Senators “who decided that not crossing the gun lobby was more important than making our kids and communities safer – OFA supporters will call them out and hold them accountable to their constituents,” he vowed.

Asked whether such actions could harm Democrats, spokesman Ben Finkenbinder pointed out, "OFA is a nonpartisan issue advocacy group that will not engage in electoral politics.”

The liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee last week went further, beginning an estimated $100,000 ad campaign railing against gun votes by Democratic senators from Alaska, Arkansas, Montana and North Dakota. Adam Green, the group’s co-founder, insists that his group only wants senators to “represent their constituents, and then they’ll be successful on Election Day.”

The senators targeted by the ad who are facing re-election say they are doing just that.

Begich, for example, said he’ll keep working to curb gun violence but “without undermining Alaska values or infringing on our fundamental rights.”

Green’s effort could very well sour liberal Democrats on these candidates, motivating them to stay home and inadvertently elect Republicans. He said he’s not worried, that Democrats made a mistake in 2010 not pushing hard enough to support the controversial new health care law. Republican opposition, he said, helped give that party majorities in both houses in those elections.

“These Democrats are voting this year out of fear,” he said. “We’re trying to stop that.”

As he does, gun rights interests are mounting their own big political effort. “Gun owners are stirred up and there is plenty of talk already on the gun rights forums about getting out the vote in 2014,” said Dave Workman, senior editor of The Gun Mag, a gun rights publication.

Here’s a look at the biggest tossups:

– Alaska. Begich won his first term in 2008 with 48 percent of the vote against a weak incumbent. He could face Republican Joe Miller, who won the party’s 2012 Senate nomination with strong help from the conservative tea party movement.

– Arkansas. Pryor, the son of a former governor and senator, won his last term with no Republican opposition. But he’s running in a state trending Republican, where Obama got 36.9 percent of the 2012 vote. Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg has dubbed Pryor the most vulnerable Senate incumbent.

– Iowa. Rep. Bruce Braley is considered a strong Democratic candidate, and it’s unclear who the Republican challenger could be. Iowa’s a state where liberals and conservatives both have strong, active constituencies, making the results of a statewide race unpredictable.

–Louisiana. Landrieu is a veteran of tight, tough races in a state where gun rights are sacred. But nearly one-third of the voters are black, and if they turn out in big numbers, she’ll have an edge.

– Montana. Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, is expected to be a leading contender for the seat of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus, who on Tuesday announced he’s retiring.

North Carolina. Hagan beat an incumbent senator five years ago with 53 percent, a year when Obama narrowly won the state. She won’t have those coattails now, and the state voted heavily Republican in 2012. Her background check vote is likely to make her a favorite target of the gun rights crowd.

– South Dakota. Even if Johnson had run, he would have been vulnerable to popular former Gov. Mike Rounds or Rep. Kristi Noem. Republicans have thrived here lately, electing over the last three years a governor, an at-large congressman, a senator and a heavily Republican legislature.

– West Virginia. Long a Democratic stronghold, the state has been trending more Republican. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is the favorite to take the seat, though she faces a primary challenge from the right.

Email:dlightman@mcclatchydc.com;Twitter:@lightmandavid

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